NGO takes on 'religionization' in Israel's secular schools

The Secular Forum has shifted its mission to address what it sees as a growing trend of religious coercion in Israeli secular school.

A meeting of the Secular Forum in Tel Aviv (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
A meeting of the Secular Forum in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
A new word has recently penetrated the heart of Israeli public discourse and debate about in the education system: “religionization.”
The term refers to an alleged attempt by the Education Ministry and other interest groups to impose, or blatantly integrate, Jewish-religious content into the curriculum of secular, state schools.
Politicians from the entire political spectrum have not been shy in expressing their opinions about this trend.
Those who justify so-called religionization claim there is nothing wrong with teaching Jewish-related subjects in public schools of the Jewish state, usually adding it is a shame that graduates of a 12-year education do not know how to read a page of Talmud or miss some other basic knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture.
Those who oppose such ideas talk about religious coercion and freedom of religion in the modern democratic state.
The leading body – from outside the political sphere – working against this phenomenon is the Secular Forum.
The organization was established in 2011 as a group that aims to preserve a secular culture in Israel and combat what they see as missionary groups that interfere with their spheres of activity and their neighborhoods.
In 2015, the group changed its focus from a more general agenda to one focusing on the characteristics of the education system in Israel – more specifically, monitoring what they see as worrying changes toward religionization in schools and kindergartens, and acting to prevent the trend.
So far, the forum has succeeded in creating media buzz around the topic and, in the process, gaining some real traction. Earlier this month, it was reported that two municipalities – Tel Aviv and Givatayim – decided to reevaluate their approach to religious NGOs that operate in kindergartens and schools.
The head of the forum, Dr. Ram Vromen, said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that after several experiences forum members had with their children, they decided to act.
“We have come to realize that education is our main battle,” said Vromen. “And since then we started working, mainly through social media and letters to the Education Ministry.”
Vromen, who wishes to revive the secular Jewish culture of the Haskala era, said throughout the years the organization has expanded to include hundreds of activists and tens of thousands of supporters.
“We see two main goals in our activities: To raise the awareness of the existence of a secular culture in Israel, and to combat the religionization in the education system,” he said.
Besides activities in social media, forum members monitor textbooks and other changes in schools, receiving the support of Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, which published a conclusive report on the subject in June 2017.
Vromen mentioned five ways in which the religionization takes form: “First there is this program that used to be called [Israel] ‘legacy’ and now it’s called ‘Israeli and Jewish culture,” he said. “It is obligatory class from first grade to ninth grade. The second is enrichment programs that are run by religious organizations.
“The third is religionization in textbooks, in which religious contents are inserted in books when usually they do not belong there. The fourth is school ceremonies that used to have secular characteristics and now are all about religion.”
Vromen gave an example about the Torah celebrations that usually happen in the second grade when students start learning the Bible. “It used to be a ‘Ben-Gurion-ish’ secular ceremony and became a ‘marching with the Torah’ ceremony that has its climax in the synagogue.”
The fifth way of religionization that Vromen calls “the hardest and most problematic,” is the presence of religious teachers in secular schools.
“Unlike the other way around, the secular education system is allowing religious teachers to teach in its schools. In the past, these teachers knew that they were teaching in secular schools – they were acting carefully and taught according to the curriculum. Today, mainly because of the ‘spirit of the commander’ [Education Minister Naftali Bennett], they let themselves guide the students to a more religious way of life, make all sorts of remarks and say stuff in class that are not pleasant to secular ears.”
Vromen dismisses claims that his actions come from hatred toward Judaism or Jewish culture. He said there was nothing wrong about “learning a bit about Judaism.” But the way he sees it, the current trend is not just a bit.
Vromen thinks it is a problem when Jewish studies are mixed in with what he sees as classes that are intended to form the students’ identity.
“In today’s reality, all humanistic studies and socials sciences subjects are focusing mainly on Jewish subjects,” he said. “I understand – and agree – that the Holocaust, for example, should be studied in depth when it comes to the Second World War, but there should be a fair balance between particular Jewish history and universal history.”
Vromen thinks that when it comes to religious studies, a secular student should be equipped with the proper tools to criticize and evaluate religious practices.
“What they are teaching now is what the prayers are and when and where they should be said,” he said.
“They neglect the whole concept of prayer and how it was developed. This stands in contrast to the values that secular parents are wanting to educate toward.”
“A secular student must receive education that balances between universal values and Jewish values,” Vromen said. “Moreover, when he receives Jewish education, it should be from a secular-critical position. They should understand that not doing mitzvot [practicing Orthodox Judaism] can be legitimate in our cultural perspective.”
The Education Ministry responded to Vromen’s claims, telling the Post they were “ridiculous and baseless.”
“About the claims of religionization in textbooks, it should be noted that after an examination that was conducted by the Textbook Approval Department, it was found that out of 80 books, only eight lines were changed,” said a ministry spokesman.
“Over a year ago, the ministry allowed [NGOs] to act in the Jewish- Israeli culture sphere, and it was budgeted with NIS 15 million, in which some 200 activities were funded. Among them were pluralist and secular bodies, alongside with Orthodox bodies.”
The spokesman said the Jewish-Israeli culture program was written by academy experts and teachers from secular schools, adding: “This subject includes a variety of topics such as the works of Hayim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg and Ahad Ha’am, next to the Rambam, Aggadot Hazal and Pirkei Avot. The programs also has the works of notable Zionist leaders such as Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion and Herzl.”